Under the Wrong Scion
Merely hanging in there for five more years under dynasty rule will not allow the Congress to return to power, as the challenge to the core values of the party is far more serious
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Since the Assembly poll rout, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi has been engaged in a discussion with senior leaders — people he was not comfortable with not so long ago — to find ways to revive the party’s battered hopes. He has also been meeting senior Congressmen alone to find out ways to rebuild the party. His exertions are not helping. In turn, they are seen as an attempt to preserve the same corrupt and clueless status quo that has been responsible for the Congress’ miserable performance.
Rahul’s failure to step up and revitalise the Congress, many believe, has prevented the coming together of a serious secular opposition to the Hindutva nationalist NDA government. A secular opposition to the BJP would indeed be difficult to obtain if the Congress is not liberated from the hold of an amateur politician who is more keen on collecting frequent flyer miles than figuring out how the party lost in spite of getting more than 10 crore votes.
The lack of credibility of the Congress VP is the stuff of lore. No one who has attended any of his meetings is convinced that he can overhaul their plunging fortunes. A senior leader, while sharing with this writer Rahul’s promise to transform the party in a year, evinced a great deal of scepticism. But this was scepticism bordering on helplessness, as he likened those promises to that which a little boy would make to his mother. “It’s hard to believe we’re talking about the Congress party, no one seems to be on the same page as him. The ideas often border on the ridiculous,” the leader said. It’s not the first time that the younger Gandhi has displayed erratic bursts of energy to steer the Congress somewhere. But, as is often the case, he loses direction and moves on to other things. According to the senior leader, he has literally taken a flight out of the country, rather than gunning for the party back home. His travels abroad at a time when he is needed the most have made him the butt of all jokes.
“What is the guarantee that he will really learn? He is loathe to speak anywhere,” claims this leader. The few times he has chosen to do so, he has run into serious controversy, like the time he visited Delhi’s press club and tore up the Parliament-backed ordinance that provided immunity to convicted leaders. “He has barely opened his mouth in Parliament in the last 10 years he has been there,” added the leader.
During the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, Congress candidates were reluctant to invite Rahul to campaign lest he hurt their chances even though Sonia and Rahul’s record in Haryana hasn’t been so bad. Of the six seats they campaigned for, the Congress managed to win three. Was it part of a strategy that they campaigned in very few constituencies in Maharashtra? Many of the candidates did not even bother to put their pictures up on the election posters. For sycophants used to prostrating in front of the mother-son, this was unprecedented. The reluctance to feature their images was exploited to the hilt by the BJP candidates, who once again started drawing comparisons with their own leader.
One BJP leader cheekily quipped, “The difference between our parties is that our candidate loses when our leader doesn’t campaign, but your candidate is bound to lose when your leader campaigns.”
It’s not that the BJP had to do much to target the Congress scion. Rahul had given them enough fodder in the form of his public gaffes and clueless politicking. They spared no time in launching vitriolic attacks through YouTube, Whatsapp, Twitter and Facebook. Particularly harmful was the epithet ‘Pappu’ — meaning an incompetent country bumpkin. What was worse was not that Rahul failed to demolish those claims, but that he began to live up to them.
Even the opportunities that came his way were not really capitalised on. After the Jaipur session last year, where he was coronated the party’s VP, Congressmen expected him to come to Delhi and take over the government in Delhi.
“We even thought he would become PM and that the Congress would fight the elections under him, but he settled down to do the exact same thing he was always doing,” claimed a senior Congress leader. The 2014 elections were meant to cement the transition of leadership from his mother to himself. But a strategy riddled with mistakes and a lifeless campaign sank the party’s boat instead.
Also, his decisions boomeranged: The decision to hold primaries to elect candidates but not respecting their results, or building a defensive campaign strategy to counter a stupendous PR campaign of the BJP. His backroom boys, headed by political juveniles, had hoped that it would counter the BJP’s tidal wave with the help of a PR agency that would highlight their achievements. Japanese firm Dentsu was paid a handsome `500 crore to make the party shine through the social media.
This, again, was empty rhetoric as the Congress leaders soon realised that even the best PR company could hardly be a substitute for the necessary fire in the belly. Add to that Rahul’s suspicion of the archetypal senior Congressman — he would not even meet with them when he went on his election campaign which sent a message across the country that there was no space for the traditional Congress voters. His last politically suicidal act was his statement that he wasn’t bothered if the Congress lost. That, in fact, he would prefer it that way.
The Congress has always been criticised for not investing enough in the party. Even after Independence, when the Congress was transformed into an election-fighting machine, questions were raised about how the absence of organisation could hurt the party.
At the time, Nehru was quite clear about how a vigorous election campaign could resolve the difference between the “organisational and parliamentary”. In the UPA government, the barrage of attacks on the issue of corruption and the inability of the government to satisfy different constituents that comprised the coalition sent both the government and the party into disarray. A weak prime minister in Manmohan Singh was always left to wonder how soon he would be removed by the Congress President to pave the way for Rahul. It may not have happened, but the uncertainty about these plans spread confusion all around. Congress leader Salman Khurshid had stated then that there was no option for the Congress but to wait for Rahul to step in as Congress President. It did not happen then. Will it happen now?
Digvijay Singh, who has been marginalised since the Congress debacle, said in an interview that it was time Rahul took over the reins of the organisation. Some time back, former finance minister P Chidambaram advised that Sonia and Rahul should speak more and also suggested that Rahul take over. But a usually cautious Chidambaram also triggered a controversy when he said that one day there could be a ‘non-Gandhi’ as Congress President.
His remarks may have touched a raw nerve amongst those who believe that without the Gandhis at the helm the party might collapse, but the truth is that more and more Congressmen believe there is life beyond the Gandhis. If the dynasty lacks the charisma to get them votes, or the big funds to keep the party afloat while out of power, why should ordinary people suffer their regal and arrogant ways, many partymen have begun to wonder.
The results of the May 2014 elections still rankle. Out of the 464 seats that the Congress contested, 178 candidates lost their deposits — 150 by more than a lakh. They won 44 seats — the lowest in its history. In the 1977 elections, when the Congress was given up for dead, it still managed to win 154 seats. Unlike this time around, it had managed to hang on to the southern part of India. Then, the party had managed to shake the dust off, but its revival this time looks bleak. Its vote share has also plummetted to 19.3 per cent — the lowest ever.
The Congressmen who suffered humiliating losses believe they have reached a political dead-end for no fault of theirs. They particularly want to know why the party leadership agreed to splitting their stronghold, Andhra Pradesh, from where they got 33 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Here again, the blame is being placed on Rahul and his favourite general secretary, Madhusudan Mistry for suggesting that the division of the state before the polls would help the party. These leaders remember with disdain claims by Jairam Ramesh that their campaigning in Telangana would offset the losses that the party would suffer in Seemandhra.
There are also tales of the party’s failure to defend its gains in building a policy-based bulwark against the BJP. The fact that the economy had survived the worst economic crisis in the new millennium was never capitalised on. India’s above-average performance in the MDGs was also never properly articulated. The defence of MNREGA, the Food Security Act (FSA) and other social policies was so weak and wimpish that many party candidates found it difficult to stand up to the BJP election campaign. It became awkward for them when constituents from their area with whom they had good relations beseeched them to leave the party. “I had spent all my MP funds in my area and was expecting people to express their gratitude, but they just did not vote for me,” said a fallen Congress candidate.
To draw a comparison, Dilma Rouseff, in the recent presidential elections in Brazil, was facing similar odds as the Congress party. Her Workers’ Party had to face endless street demonstrations on issues of corruption and on the exorbitant expenditure on the football World Cup. She took the criticism on the chin, but still managed to win with the help of the poor and the needy who had benefited from her party’s policies. The Congress, in comparison, failed to convey that impression to its traditional vote bank. Instead, it was seen as a party of corrupt cronies that was using their linkages with venal government ministers to milk the system.
How does the party of the freedom struggle defeat this impression? The Congress has risen from the ashes in the past. Between 1977 and 2004, there have been endless examples when the party managed to get its act together. But the challenges this time, in gymnastic parlance, are of a different degree. Its area of influence is whittling rapidly. After the loss in Haryana and Maharashtra, the Congress influence is down to nine states. The only big state under its control is Karnataka, the rest are small and marginal in the national scheme of things. The party has been out of power in UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha and Chhattisgarh for more than a decade. All of them add up to more than 300 seats. By the look of it, in Maharashtra and Haryana, too, the party will find it difficult to return any time soon. To reclaim them could be a daunting proposition for any party under any leadership.
However, some in the party are hoping that if they hang on and stay together, they could still win by playing the dynasty card. The firm of Ahmed Patel and ML Fotedar echoes the same refrain. But is there merit in this?
Many senior Congress leaders find this idea abhorrent. It was only in the 2014 elections that they discovered the grammar of politics had changed. Perhaps due to the anti-corruption movement, people have become active participants in democracy. Some Congress leaders have had a late realisation of this fact but in the absence of a crowd-pulling leader among their ranks, it’s a moot point. Rahul is poor in handling the media as well as working the crowds. His choreographed mannerism of folded sleeves and rehearsed anger does not impress anyone. His short speeches have only exasperated organisers.
Some Congressmen have been pleading with the Congress President to give her daughter, Priyanka Gandhi, greater responsibility in the organisation. Party officials have turned down this demand. While it is possible that Priyanka’s screen presence could salvage the Congress’ lost dignity, her husband’s scandals would make her a huge liability. Even Rahul and Sonia have been issued summons in the National Herald case. Legal experts are convinced that the family will need serious help to weather it. If grief of this nature visits the party, will the Congress look any different from the AIADMK after J Jayalalithaa’s incarceration?
These are issues that ought to be factored in by Congressmen as they search for ways to stay afloat. Some, like Tamilian MK Wasan, are reviving their old party and others may follow suit too. The party needs to do much more than put out a farcical report on why it lost, as was done by AK Antony, who put the blame on the government. A fact roundly criticised by senior leaders like HR Bharadwaj who categorically stated that the government was totally under the control of the party. Rahul’s attempt to infuse life into the party and give space to a new generation of leadership by having organisational elections will only preserve the status quo. The elections that he organised for front organisations are a case in point. It did not stem the nepotistic tendencies nor stay immune to the influence of money; worse, it gave a democratic legitimacy to it. The same would be perpetrated until the Gandhis and their ‘advisers’ step back and allow a bunch of senior and mass leaders to revisit the causes of the defeat and usher in organisational elections. Unlike in the past, merely hanging in there for five years will not allow them to return to power as the challenge to the core values of the Congress is far more serious.